The Difference between Unstructured Outdoor Play and Outdoor Play Structures

What is Play?

The word play brings to mind exploring something with an open mind, discovering its properties, understanding what it can or cannot do and forming new ideas. For the child under six, play is a bridge that links them to the world. This play is the work of the child and through it, they form many new ideas about the world while also understanding themselves and their endless capabilities.

Outdoor play is an important aspect of play that introduces to the young child the wonders of the natural world. 

“Play is motivated by means more than ends. Play is constantly evolving and developing into new forms of play and play schemes. Play is also not passive but requires constant assessment and engaged minds.”

Angela J. Hanscom, Balanced & BareFoot

Unstructured Outdoor Play

The word unstructured by itself removes limitations on the child’s exploration of the outdoors. The outdoor environment has so much sensory stimuli that unstructured play allows the child to choose which stimulus they would like to be drawn to.

  • Bonding with Nature

In today’s world which is crowded by tall buildings, endless traffic and busy schedules, outdoor play provides a respite to the young child. It slows down time just a little bit, allowing them to freely play in the natural surroundings. This kind of play in the outdoors without all the layers of human touch is vital for the child to form a lasting relationship with nature.

  • Dynamic Challenges

When we leave the child to freely explore the natural world, they can set their own challenges depending on the stage of development they are in. A baby might simply be on a patch of grass, crawling and watching a butterfly or grasping a flower while a toddler might choose run on the grass, feed birds and pick fallen leaves. Older children with more controlled movements are free to set more complex challenges such as climbing trees, hiking up a steep slope or running and playing with the dog.

This kind of structure-free play frees up the mind to set challenges for oneself and devise strategies to overcome them.

Structure-Free Outdoor Play
  • Sharpening Judgement

Imagine the young child in a natural environment and think of the endless possibilities for building judgement. As adults, we sometimes forget that the child is building judgement through play. Every interaction such as crawling to a leaf, trying to catch a dragonfly, getting pricked by a thorn, feeling the prickly grass, falling down while running or jumping high for the branch with the fruit calls for calculation. These are essential for the child to hone and a structure-free natural environment will do a lot to constantly challenge the young child’s judgement.

  • Vivid Imagination

Because of the range of sensory input the child receives by playing outdoors, the abstractions they form are diverse. These lay a strong foundation for the budding imagination. An older child will begin to show signs of this imagination when they use leaves as medicines in their imaginary play, twigs as huts, straw for water boats and so on. This imagination which is more manifest in the older child has its foundation in that small baby who plays with the outdoor environment and understands it.

Outdoor Play Structures

Outdoor play structures on the other hand are specially designed structures to challenge young children’s gross motor skills, their vestibular sense and overall mind-body coordination. Some commonly found structures are swings and slides, merry-go-round, jungle gyms and climbing domes.

  • Fixed Challenges

Each of the play structures are created for a specific challenge. For example, the slide is designed for the child to climb/crawl up the ladder using calculated movements and then slide down at full speed. While sliding down, the child’s vestibular sense is stimulated.  The same goes for most other commonly found play structures. They are designed for fixed challenges and do not hold the same openness as natural environments with dynamic challenges.

  • Not Exactly Outdoor Play

While swings and slides which are large equipments fit better in an outdoor environment, they are not necessarily outdoor play. There is no element of nature involved in this play apart from some fresh air which comes naturally by being outdoors.

  • No Room for Imagination

A swing or a slide or merry-go-round does not challenge the child’s inner need for exploration. Play is something that must show different dimensions with each exploration. Imagine adults calling a treadmill or an elliptical ‘play’. These are specific gym equipments designed for specific purposes. Likewise, the outdoor park structures are specific equipments designed to serve specific purposes and they do not do anything else to feed the child’s imagination.

Why is it Important to Understand the Difference?

These days, when we use the word outdoor play, it somehow immediately translates to play in park structures. As we have seen, outdoor play is so much more than playing on a swing or climbing a jungle gym. Although play structures help challenge the child’s gross motor skills, they do not necessarily feed other areas of development which a natural, unstructured play environment fosters. While it is necessary for us to take our children to the neighbourhood park to challenge their gross motor skills, it is also equally important to plan and take our children to natural settings with raw nature unfolding. The structured outdoor parks with plastic grass, wood chips and foam mats are not the same as the uneven outdoor trails,the hilly slopes with wild flowers and shrubs, the stones and gravel which make the play a lot more challenging.  

“Playing in nature adds an element of adventure. Nature is unpredictable and exploring nature is always an exciting experience. Since playground equipment only serves a few functions, it often leaves little to the imagination. Having access to movable natural items, such as branches, rocks, sticks, leaves and pinecones adds a new element to play. Natural playgrounds tend to inspire creative play in children because there are endless play opportunities.”

Angela J. Hanscom, Balanced & BareFoot

When we expand our understanding of outdoor play, we will begin to look beyond the park fences and understand that outdoor play is the beginning of a lifetime of friendship, love and oneness with the natural world.

4 thoughts on “The Difference between Unstructured Outdoor Play and Outdoor Play Structures”

  1. Just another outstanding lucid article highlighting on outdoor activities even for toddlers…. we are part of the nature and having highly evolved we need to strengthen our bonding from childhood. Excellent Ms Janani….

    Like

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